London’s Little Scandinavia

I was recently invited to attend a Sunday church service and I jumped at the chance! Not, I confess, because I’d had a spiritual reawakening. I was simply curious to visit this place of worship in one of my favourite areas of London. You see the church was Norwegian and the area was Rotherhithe, which from now on will be London’s ‘Little Scandinavia’ to me.

Several years ago I lived in this historic south London Thameside area and became very fond of the ancient pubs (including the Mayflower where the Pilgrim Fathers originally set sail from – sorry Plymouth but they actually started their journey from here), cobbled alleyways and general Dickensian feel. I traversed Brunel’s incredible engineering feat in the form of a tunnel under the Thames (which incidentally now hosts atmospheric underground concerts, as well as wonderful garden parties during the summer) and I regularly cycled or walked along by the river.

But I was blissfully ignorant of the area’s Scandinavian connection, other than a vague awareness of there being a Swedish Seaman’s Mission somewhere in the vicinity. Sadly the historic Mission closed before I was able to visit it, but it turns out that it wasn’t the only Nordic place of worship in the area, as the Norwegian Church and Seaman’s Mission (also known as St. Olave’s Church) is still conducting services, as is the Finnish church.

As Rotherhithe’s major port status has crumbled since Rotterdam stole its thunder, I would be forgiven for assuming that there isn’t much call for a Norweigan Seaman’s Mission anymore, so I thought I had better pay the place a visit sooner rather than later. Then I received an invitation by the wonderful organisation SharedCity (www.sharedcity.co.uk), which helps Londonders to visit the world without leaving town through their cultural tours, to join them at a service. It was the last impetus I needed to do something sacred with my Sunday for a change.

On the morning that I visited, the St Olave’s church service was being recorded for Norwegian radio, so it was a strict phones off policy (which meant no discreet photos of the service to share). But I can report that it was a beautiful hour-long affair, and that not being able to understand a word being said didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it. In fact familiar hymns such as Amazing Grace sounded angelic when sung by the choir in Norwegian, and when a celloist and opera singer ‘entertained’ us from the gallery during the blessing I was in celestial heaven.

As if that wasn’t enough, the after-service refreshments weren’t confined to mere tea and biscuits. Instead, you could indulge in a full-on Sunday lunch of Scandinavian meatballs with all the trimmings, including generous dollops of lingonberry sauce, followed by delicious cakes. This generous and delicious lunch was included as part of the SharedCity tour and was followed by a friendly talk exclusively for its participants, by the priest, who incidentally looked like he had stepped out of the Norwegian band Aha! (and anyone who remembers them will know that that is definitely a good thing!) He explained how the Mission came about and how it still thrives. They basically have an open door policy and are so so much more than just a place to worship. In fact the building was deliberately constructed back in 1927 to include a relaxation area to read or eat in. This was in order to attract the visiting seamen from Scandinavia there instead of the many bars and brothels.

After the beautiful service, a delicious lunch and an interesting talk I felt well set for the week ahead. But wait, there was more! A jazz band would now entertain us. Apparently non-sacramental afternoon entertainment is the norm. I was beginning to like St. Olave’s more and more with every passing minute. In fact I would have been happy just to visit the beautiful historic building for the architectural enjoyment alone but I came away having felt part of the Norwegian community for a few hours and I felt very blessed as a result. I wasn’t sure that their Finnish neighbours would be able to top that.

Actually the Finnish church was full of surprises too. Admittedly it was a more modern building, though still attractive in its own minimalist, tasteful, Scandinavian way. But the trick up its sleeve was that it had its very own sauna! Yes, that’s right! And anyone can come and use it; there is just one rule – clothes are not allowed. (Well actually there is another rule – you can only use it alone or with other members of the same sex  -but still, it’s not often that church-goers are asked to politely requested to strip).

Of course the sauna is not compulsory, but it is a very popular feature. This is because apparently every home in Finland has one, so to come and live in England and not have access to a sauna is a bit like being told that you lovely new home is missing a bathroom. I was told, during the interesting talk for SharedCity visitors, that it is very much the norm for the Fins to partake in a sauna at the end of the day as a kind of demarcation between work time and relaxation. A bit like the English tradition of going down the pub I guess, but a bit healthier.

Saunas aside, the Finnish church is also home to a very well-stocked Scandinavian food store and a pleasant cafe, with indoor and outdoor seating. I was impressed enough by this, so the unexpected concert by the Swedish children’s choir was an unnecessary addition. But it was lovely and I certainly left feeling very elated.

In fact all in all I spent a very pleasant few hours in an oft overlooked area of London. So, Ikea eat your heart out – this is my Sunday Scandinavian pastime from now on!

SharedCity conduct several tours around London where you can immerse yourself in different cultures ranging from South Indian to Italian to Latin American. The three hour ‘Norway & Finland’ tour costs £25, which includes the Norwegian lunch. I strongly recommend trying one of their tours, particular as a pertinent reminder that it is London’s multiculturism that helps make it such a vibrant, fascinating and popular city!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother and child bonding

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A mother was sitting with her young daughter and son outside the Printers & Stationers cafe just off Columbia Road – which is a wonderful place for people watching – especially on Sundays, the flower market day! The sight that first caught my attention was the red glasses next to the red flower as their heads almost touched, so I wanted to capture that – purely for aesthetic reasons. But just as I was discreetly photographing them the little girl moved closer to her mother and then leaned her hand against her head with such effortless affection. It seemed such a mature thing to do that it felt as if the roles had been reversed and the child had become the mother. It was such a moving sight that I’m glad I captured it. I hope they don’t mind my sharing this sweet little moment of intimacy!

John and George

 

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Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to do things like this blog. Don’t get me wrong – I love sharing my photos, and I love getting feedback even more! But if I wasn’t sitting at my desk publishing my photos I could be out and about in the streets of London forever meeting fascinating characters. People like John Dolan and his wonderful dog George.

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I spotted George before I saw John. I was captivated by the sight of this dog with begging note and bowl and thought what a clever idea it was to dress a pet up in a jacket and get him to do the begging for you (though it turned out that the jacket was only on him because he was cold). But I soon discovered that George was more than just a characterful dog; he was a lifesaver. And his best friend happened to be a pretty good artist who was busy sketching his faithful friend while he was earning his Pedigree Chum. And John was more than just an artist – he was a man with an incredible story, whose life had been turned around thanks to this dog in front of me.

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John didn’t need much encouragement to tell his story. It  turns out that he is a former petty criminal who has been in and out of prison more times than George has shaken a leg; he is also an ex-heroin addict and has spent far too many years living rough on london’s streets than was good for him. It was George that got him off the crime because John realised that if he was sent away again he wouldn’t be able to look after him. (Incidentally, the affection between the two is palpable and the intense pleasure on George’s face when his master goes to pet him is so evident that I doubt John can bear to be away from him even for a second). So he switched to begging instead. But he found the process so demoralising that he decided to place George in prime position so that the focus didn’t fall on himself. But he had to do something to entertain himself while George was doing his job, so he returned to the one thing that he had been good at at school – art.

John gradually re-found his groove at drawing and, as generally happens when you have visible talent in the streets of London, he was eventually discovered. What happened next is like the script of a feature film. John got himself off the heroine; got himself an exhibition (his collaborative prints sold for up to £50k each); his book is about to hit the streets (which he assured us would be a bestseller); he’s a regular on TV and there is now an LA stamp in his passport.

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Like George, who was sadly beaten up by some other dogs the night before and was looking very delicate as a result, John still bears his physical and emotional battle scars. And while there was no doubting his talent I could not help but wonder just how much of what he was telling me was true. I enquired how much it would cost to buy the sketch that he was working on. “They usually sell for £50 but I’ll let you have it for £20” he replied. I didn’t have that much on me and I was so distracted by the conversation and in taking photos of George that I forgot to pursue purchasing it. But I did tell John that I’d love to photograph him. “I tell you what, I have an event at Howard Griffin gallery in Shoreditch on Thursday” he replied. “Come along!” “Ok, give me the details”. With that John drew me a little picture of George and said “That will get you in”.

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After saying our goodbyes I decided to view the gallery website just to check that the event really was taking place. Sure enough a rather impressive exhibition of John’s works was just coming to a close. But there was no mention of an event, so I phoned the gallery. “Yes there is a reception,” the employee told me, “but the entrance policy is very strict so you really have to prove that you have been invited  to get in.” So I sent them a photograph of John’s sketch and  a nice response came back saying that my friend and I were now indeed on the guest list. I felt rather honoured to be included, but also rather churlish for not having taken up John’s offer of his latest sketch of George for just £20!

Well least I still have his little sketch in my notebook, which had already felt rather special, but now has an extra monetary value that I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time!

You can find out more about John Dolan and George here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/19/john-dolan-homeless-addict-to-artist-and-author

and see his pictures from his exhibition at Howard Griffin here: http://howardgriffingallery.com/exhibitions/john-and-george/

The event I am attending is in aid of Wrap Up – a charity that donates coats to the homeless. (John’s life may have moved forward in incredible ways, but he hasn’t forgotten where he once was, and could still be now, if it wasn’t for that rather special dog called George).

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The lost Elvis

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Something that I have always loved about my area of London is all the free music festivals. And also the fact that you can pretty much guarantee that if you go to one you will see ‘the two Elvises’ giving it everything on the dance floor. I’ve seen them strutting their stuff for about ten years now and I can’t tell you my delight when I came back from having been away for five years this April to one of the first festivals of the season to see them there on the dance floor as if I’d never been away. It felt so reassuring – as if the clocks had stood still in my absence.

But at today’s festival something was amiss. Only one of the Elvises was dancing! The other one sat looking incredibly forlorn just watching on from a deckchair. He did not try to hide his misery – their was no stoicism about him. It was like his reason for being had ceased to exist. His partner was trying to take up the slack by giving it all she had but it was not the same. She would never be one of the two Elvises – she knew it, we knew it and he damn well knew it.

“What is going on?” I kept asking my companion. “Why is he not dancing? It’s like he has become suddenly disabled, and yet he is tapping his feet so he can’t be.” “Go and ask him” she said. But she didn’t understand. You don’t talk to the Elvises – it would ruin the whole mystique. They danced; they let you take their photograph, but they didn’t talk.

However, fate intervened and as the final band was packing up the still active of the Elvis, to my utter surprise, approached us and offered us his Churros (a kind of Mexican donut) that they hadn’t eaten. This was the most surreal thing ever for me. It was like Elvis himself had suddenly decided to rise from the grave to converse with me. I seized the opportunity to ask him what the hell was going on. Why was his friend not dancing?! “His knee has mysteriously swollen up” he replied. “He’s devastated.” As I watched him later hobble away with his friend and his partner supporting him it was one of the saddest scenes I had witnessed. I wanted to take a photograph because the scene was so poignant but the battery on my camera suddenly died. It felt apt really, as if he shouldn’t be recorded that way.

The guy lying in front of the free entertainers is John, whom you will probably guess was rather drunk. My friend and I watched him with fascination as he attempted to stand at the end of the event; wobbled on his feet somewhat; gazed to the sky as if for inspiration then went crashing through the barriers in front of the stage and lay prostrate for several minutes. We brought him over to sit with us and tried to prize the drink off him, offering to trade it for coffee, but he wasn’t having it. He turned out to be a very sweet person who worked as a litter picker (it took him several attempts to say that) and kept asking us what football team we supported, as if that was the only important thing in life really (he was a West Ham supporter). As we packed up to go home he asked to take a ‘selfie’ of us. We agreed and on the count of three we both kissed him on the cheeks. I have no doubt that the whole concert will soon become a total blur to John, but I smile as I imagine him looking at his photo maybe on the way to work and thinking “Crikey! I must have had a really good weekend!” Unlike the poor forlorn ‘Elvis’, who was missing his blue suede dancing shoes.

 

 

Columbia Road people – and pets

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As promised, here are my people photographs taken at Columbia Road on Sunday morning, with the occasional dog thrown in for good measure. There is a slight nod to two very different street photographers – Martin Parr and Vivian Maier – in them, especially in the final two pictures (no prizes for guessing who features in the last one!)  I think the photo of the lady smiling with the flowers looks slightly out of place amongst all the other more somber pictures, but I included it because of the contrast with the homeless guy in the background looking on rather dejectedly. And yes he is the same guy featured in two other pictures. I don’t think he was having a very good day so he moved around a lot.

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Pretty in Pink

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It can be annoying whenever the school holidays came around and all those tourists swell London in even greater numbers than the norm. Right now the South Bank is swamped – it took me five minutes just to get onto the steps for Tower Bridge yesterday, such was the sea of people. This year the crowds seem even more dense – which is shouldn’t be surprising as London has recently been declared the world’s most visited city and as I happen to live in one of the top tourist places within said-city.

 But the funny thing is that it used to bother me but not anymore. I don’t know if it’s because my photographer’s eye has developed, or because the sunshine is having a calming effect on me, but I just see one photo opportunity after another.

I love the fact that the tourists look so different to the Londoners – whether they have come from just a few miles away or from across the world, they just stand out as not being one of us. They bring a sense of innocence and charm with them, as if they are slightly bewildered by this big city and overwhelmed by it, but in a positive way. (Because, let’s face it – London is an amazing city!) I particularly enjoy seeing the children in their colourful summer clothes and funky sunglasses – if they happen to be clutching an ice cream I’m in heaven!

I found the sight of this little girl pointing to her choice at the ‘SNOG’ frozen yogurt bus rather endearing. At first I was frustrated that her presumed mother was standing so close and I couldn’t crop her out. But then looking back at the photo I realized that she added something to the scene – a motherly protection perhaps, and maybe a subtle prediction of what the future holds if this little girl enjoys too many frozen delights!

 

Sunspray on the South Bank

I’ve decided to try out a new format with my posts. I’ve become so prolific at taking photos of late that I can’t keep up with the postings (especially as I still have such an extensive archive from outside London), and I admit I find it hard sometimes to choose just one picture following a frenzied photography excursion!

So, I’m going to try posting occasionally some collections of photographs – either taken from a recent shoot, or following a given theme. That way I don’t have to bombard you all with daily posts, but some of my favourite photographs still get to be seen. I’m starting by re-visiting my South Bank fountain shoot. Any feedback will be gratefully received!

 

 

An homage to Colin O’Brien

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My return to London after my extensive travels will be remembered for two remarkable things – the wonderful sunshine that we have been constantly blessed with since I’ve been back, and for the incredibly talented and inspirational people that I have unintentionally met – including a top war photographer, an award-winning director, an international recording artist and now, just today, another of my heroes of photography!

I stumbled across an exhibition by Colin O’Brien at Chats Palace in Hackney around seven years ago. His evocative black and white photographs from the 50s and 60s moved me and I couldn’t understand why this photographer, who had captured life in London, particularly the East End, so sympathetically and poetically, wasn’t a household name alongside the likes of Jane Bown and Tony Ray-Jones.

I was reminiscing about this exhibition just this morning to my new director acquaintance (one of the new shining stars in my life) and lamenting that I have never seen his work since but would love to share it with him. Later we went for a walk along the South Bank and passed by the prestigious OXO Tower gallery. “It’s him I exclaimed!” Unbelievably, through the gallery glass I could see those same iconic black and white images, like old friends waving at me. Naturally we went in and I headed straight to the desk to tell the man sitting there how coincidentally I had been talking about this photographer that very morning. “I’m flattered” he replied and I realised that I was talking to the very Colin O’Brien whose work had enthralled me so!

I was amazed at how young and vibrant he looked (is that one of the benefits of being a street photographer I wondered….?) and I chatted animatedly with him for several minutes, as if he too was an old friend, until I couldn’t wait any longer to re-visit some of my favourite pictures, including the one that has been etched in my creative mind this past seven years and inspired me through my own comparatively miniscule photography career: http://migrationmuseum.org/output/exhibition/100-images-of-migration/1-girl-balloon/

During our conversation I told Colin how incredulous I was that he wasn’t more recognised. In response he gently pointed out that he had actually enjoyed 33 exhibitions in total (so the underscore was that he wasn’t actually doing that badly!) I felt a burden lifting from my shoulders and, yet again this summer, it was a reminder from a photography master that our chosen medium isn’t a dying art. There is still a place for it amongst all the dross of happy snaps if you have enough passion and belief in the power of that image taken at just the right time to capture a moment that will ultimately talk to people.

For not the first time this summer I felt uplifted and inspired. It was an incredibly beautiful late afternoon as I made my way home, with a wonderful golden light and lots of interesting characters out and about enjoying some summer Sunday fun. It felt ironic that the person who could capture this in all its glory was stuck behind a desk in a gallery. So, I took some photos for him, including the one featured. I hope Colin likes it a fraction of the amount of how much I love and admire his images of every day life – because for me that is what great photography is all about!

You can see more of Colin’s work here: http://www.colinobrien.co.uk/ and catch his free exhibition at the OXO Tower up until 10th August: http://www.oxotower.co.uk/events/65-colin-obrien/

Not just for rainy days

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There’s a secret courtyard a few minutes from my home, just by the wonderful gastronomic delight that is Borough Market. As you can see, the place is adorned with the most beautiful array of suspended umbrellas. It is such a stupendous burst of colour that the display looks great even on the dullest of days (in fact you get the bonus of great reflection photos from the puddles when it rains). But on bright sunny days such as the ones that London is currently being blessed with, these candy coloured umbrellas really get to shine. How can anyone feel low when standing under something as delightfully cheery as this rainbow of sunshine?

An homage to Vivian Maier

DSCF4667 2Yesterday I finally got to see the documentary ‘Finding Vivian Maier” I was covered in goosebumps for practically the entire duration of the film. It is a fantastical story about an incredibly secretive Chicago nanny in the 1950s who took photos, most of which were never even printed, but whose images are some of the most powerful, moving examples of street photography that I have ever seen. She had such empathy with her subjects – the joy, the misery, the poverty. She may have been a reclusive outsider but she had such a feeling for humanity, that finally was able to be revealed in the dark room, coincidentally so soon after her death.

I walked home in a trance, so excited that street photography could be so beautiful, and so appreciated. If I needed another spur to keep doing what I am doing with my own street photography, then this was it. This is one of the photos I took last night in that drunken haze of admiration and inspiration.

Thank you Vivian Maier. I’m sorry I never met you, but I will always feel like I knew you, through the legacy of your work, and  as a friend who felt compelled to do what I too feel driven to do – to capture all facets of street life in through the lens.

Circles and lines

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The area around the O2 in North Greenwich is changing. Fast. Massive construction works are going on that will finally regenerate this strange wasteland south of the river that is so geographically close to some of London’s most expensive property, yet traditionally ostracised by virtue of the river Thames separating it from its richer cousin, with no means of linking the two. But at last the lack of a bridge is not seen as a deterrent to the property developers. As London grows and people seek out more and more areas to populate, this patch has finally been seized upon as somewhere ripe for renewal.

It’s a fascinating area to visit right now as you are able to get up close to the construction site and record North Greenwich of old before it morphs into another haven for ubiquitous steel and glass pop ups, like the architectural equivalent of Ikea flatpacks. Strange curiosities include a huge gas turbine; the circus-like Millennium Dome and an abandoned container ship sliced in two. No doubt I will post images of those another day, but I’m starting with this one because I love the repetition of circles and lines within.

It’s another step off the beaten path for me, photographically as well as literally, so I hope you like it.

 

 

Boy with the balloon

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I was asked recently if I was religious. I replied that I wasn’t, but in hindsight maybe I should have explained that that doesn’t stop me from being spiritual. I believe for example that people deliberately come into your lives for a reason, even if for just the most fleeting of periods, and it is not only for us to enjoy these encounters but to understand their significance.

Maybe a recent such happy collision of different worlds was meant to make myself believe in the concept of photography again; in its ability to capture beautiful, powerful moments on this incredible planet and freeze them forever so that they achieve a permanent significance. I like to think that good pictures are a form of poetry – after all photography officially translates as ‘writing with words’. The photographer’s role is not only to choose the settings and to press the shutter button; firstly he or she has to recognise these moments – to have the photographer’s eye.

I feel spiritual when I photograph a scene like the one pictured because I am filled with love for these people – strangers whose names I will never know. I’ll never feel the touch of their skin, hear the sounds of their laughter or know the brightness of their smiles; but they have become a little part of me and for that they have my affection. Maybe that is why photography is so addictive – it is less about sharing your work but of connecting with the subjects. Which is why I’m sometimes a bit reticent about processing or posting photos. I feel my job has already been done the moment the shutter fell and that connection was made. But if people believe in my work I guess I should believe in myself enough to take it to the next step and to keep publishing and exhibiting my work. And through that process to keep growing as a photographer.

Musing over. Normal, more regular, postings will now resume. That is my pact to myself.